New Questions and Answers
Q. My friend Ed says that there is a problem with the sentence “An error occurred while processing your request.” More specifically, he says that it sounds like the error is processing the request. Do you see what he is talking about? Is this a legitimate criticism? The sentence in question is a common message from computer systems, and when we asked around, no one could see a problem with it. I wondered if there might be some underlying grammatical exception that explained why the message seemed so clear (despite the error Ed perceived). But I guess it is just one of those things that people understand unambiguously because of its context.
A. Ed is right about there being a grammar problem, because there is no word in the sentence that tells who is processing, and the best candidate is error. Consider this: if you read “A bird sang while flying by your window,” you understand it to mean “A bird sang while [it, the bird, was] flying by your window.” The grammar is the same in “An error occurred while [it, the error, was] processing your request.” It’s true that people generally understand this construction from its context without perceiving it as an error. The danger is when language like this is used to dodge responsibility for an action. It’s more honest to clean up the grammar and name the actor: “An error occurred while we were processing your request.”
Q. Under what circumstances should “per annum” be used preferentially to “per year”? Do they have different meanings or are they interchangeable?
A. They have the same meaning, but “per annum” is fancier.
Q. In alphabetizing a list of donors that includes both foundations and individuals, is there a rule? The foundation would typically be ordered by the first word, but names by the last word. What do you do when they are combined in the same list?
A. Follow the same rules: alphabetize an organization under the first significant word, and an individual donor by surname. The Merry Gregg Foundation goes under M; Merry Gregg goes under G.
Q. How would I cite from a curator’s statement of an art exhibit and specifically note that the curator’s statement is included in the exhibit, and is not simply a statement made in an article or interview? Perhaps something like this? Ann MacDonald, curatorial statement, Souvenir involontaire, by Melanie Rocan (Saskatoon, SK: Kenderdine Art Gallery).
A. That’s a good start. Include the usual facts (person, place, date) and explain them clearly. As you have it, however, Souvenir involontaire might be the title of the statement. If MacDonald was commenting on an exhibit of Rocan’s art, rewrite for clarity: Ann MacDonald, curatorial statement displayed in Melanie Rocan’s Souvenir involontaire exhibit, Kenderdine Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK. If possible, add a date.
Q. I work for a company that says they’re focused on building client relationships. However, they insist when we address an email to one of our own clients whom we know well that we put a comma in hi, hello, or good morning, Joe. I have been told that this is a very formal way of addressing someone. Help!
A. The comma in a greeting of direct address is not very formal; it’s been the standard form for a very long time in all kinds of correspondence. Omitting the comma, on the other hand, is casual, and you never know which readers (especially anyone over forty) might consider it an error. Of course everyone understands that e-mail is not a formal means of communication, but depending on the kind of business you are in, you might want your e-mail to reflect a certain level of professionalism. If so, the comma is a good idea.
Q. I have read section 14.29 on how to use the term ibid. in footnotes, but I would appreciate some clarification on the following: is it required to use ibid. rather than the shortened citation? Suppose I have:
Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1998), 174.
And then later on I have:
Lambert, Medieval Heresy, 173.
If I deal with that same source in the very next footnote, may I use that shortened form again (with a respective page number) or am I actually required to use ibid.? One of my professors said that I had to.
A. If your professor says you have to use ibid., then, yes, it is required. Otherwise, it’s optional, and you can use the shortened style.
Q. CMOS recommends spelling out terms on first mention in each chapter. I’m considering spelling out my commission’s name on first mention in each section and subsection. Do you think that’s overkill? I’m thinking about spelling it out in sections that stand out, such as text boxes or highlighted bullets, because I think the reader would be better served to see the whole name in such isolated cases. We have about a hundred mentions of this long name, so I do want to abbreviate as much as possible.
A. You are smart to consider whether this might be overkill. The Chicago guideline is to spell out a name at the first mention in each chapter because most scholarly books have long chapters, and such a name might appear only once or twice in a book, with a lot of pages in between. Readers will appreciate being reminded. However, if your sections are short, the long name appears a hundred times, and you demand that the name appear in full at every first mention—even if it was spelled out in the section just before—I doubt that readers will find it helpful. In fact, they might wonder if the writer thinks they’re witless. The idea is to provide the full name whenever you think readers need a reminder. If you think some readers will skim through just looking at bullet points and text boxes, spell it out there as well, if there is room.
Q. One of my professors insists on using the Chicago style when writing papers. The problem is that what he says often sounds like a CMOS truth from an edition that has not been in use for years. He wants single-spacing on things that according to the 16th edition are now double-spaced. And worse, he is an anti-Internet Luddite who will not make the effort to confirm what classmates and I insist are the current CMOS standards. Any helpful suggestions on handling something like this?
A. Certainly! First, for the purposes of surviving your class it doesn’t actually matter what current Chicago style is. You only need to know what Professor Luddite wants. Try one or more of these:
—Ask him to say which edition he wants you to follow. Your library will surely have a copy.
—Ask him if he would be willing to prepare a sheet of requirements for you. You might even make a list of elements for him to consider: margins, indents, type size, font, what to double-space, what to single-space, and anything else you’re wondering about.
—It’s possible that your prof is not referring to The Chicago Manual of Style at all, but to Kate L. Turabian’s Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, the standard student reference, which actually does call for single-spacing some elements, such as block quotations, notes, and bibliographies. (Turabian is based on Chicago style but diverges at a few points.) You can find one of the many online guides to Turabian here: http://library.uww.edu/GUIDES/turacite.htm.
If none of this helps, there’s probably nothing you can do. You will triumph only by bearing it with good grace and by resolving not to torment others when you hold the power one day.
Q. What do you say (or do) to an author who makes extensive revisions (without tracking) to his original manuscript after you have sent him the copyedited version? Just wondering . . .
A. Please use your imagination; we would rather not say.
(As for the manuscript, Microsoft Word’s “Compare” feature might help.)
Q. Dear CMOS Editors: When omitting the end of a sentence in a quotation, should there be a space after the ellipsis before the closing quotation mark? (1) The Supreme Court ordered the school districts to desegregate “with all deliberate speed. . . . ” (2) The Supreme Court ordered the school districts to desegregate “with all deliberate speed. . . .” I see that 13.53 indicates there should not be a final space, but I’m not sure if that rule applies beyond sentences that are deliberately grammatically incomplete.
A. Don’t add a space. Note too that there is rarely a need to put an ellipsis at the end of a quotation that forms a grammatical sentence, whether in itself or, as here, with what precedes it. You would be fine with (3) The Supreme Court ordered the school districts to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”
Q. Dear Editors: I’m familiar with section 14.187 of the manual, but how can I format a citation to an entire issue of a journal: no editors, no special title?
A. Cite it as usual, but without an article title: Critical Inquiry 39, no. 1 (Autumn 2012).
Q. I work as a proofreader for a major retailer, and my colleague and I are having a heated disagreement about our company’s frequent use of the term “in store” (e.g., Available in store only). My colleague thinks that “in-store” is a destination, and, as such, it should be considered a compound noun (or adverb) and should be hyphenated (in cases such as the example above). I, however, think that the term “in store” is actually a poorly executed prepositional phrase, and, as such, it should be changed to “in stores” (in cases such as the example above) and should be hyphenated only in its adjectival form (e.g., in-store promotion). Can you please settle our dispute? Thank you!
A. There’s really no need for a heated disagreement; you can look at this in various ways. If you see “in-store” as similar to “in-house,” which Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary hyphenates whether adjective or adverb, then you can justify hyphenating all the time. If you see it as a prepositional phrase, you can justify leaving it open after a noun. Both stylings are common and familiar in advertising and will confuse no one. If you want to play on the meaning of “in store” as “in readiness” (“See what’s in store for you”), omit the hyphen.
Q. This is a question regarding the use of boxes of text in a manuscript. The boxes will be numbered box 1, box 2, box 3, etc. When tables or figures are included inside such a box, should they be numbered? If so, should the numbering continue sequentially with the tables and figures appearing outside the box?
A. Normally notes and tables within boxed text are numbered separately from the rest of the text, because the exact placement of the box cannot be known until the pages have been composed. That is, the author may intend for a box to fall after table 6 in the text, but in typesetting there might not be room on that page, and the box might end up on the next page, after table 7. A separate numbering system for boxed tables or figures can use letters or whatever you devise, such as “table B1.1,” “table B1.2,” and so forth. And if notes in the manuscript are numbered with superscript 1, 2, 3, then any notes in the text boxes might have superscript letters (a, b, c) or roman numerals (i, ii, iii).
Q. Is it acceptable for the subject of a sentence to use “(s)” to indicate a possibility of plurality? If so, should the verb that follows be singular or plural? The attached form(s) indicates the required accounts or The attached form(s) indicate the required accounts?
A. The “(s)” construction works only when the noun in question is not the subject of a sentence. Instead, you can use the plural alone, which we usually understand to include the possibility of a singular meaning: The attached forms indicate the required accounts. Or, if you don’t think that’s clear enough, be more explicit: One or more attached forms indicate the required accounts. Or you can rewrite to cast the “(s)” word as something other than the subject of the sentence: Required accounts are indicated by the attached form(s).
Q. When including tables of statistics in an essay, do I place all the tables in one appendix or each table into a separate appendix? Is the appendix before or after the bibliography? Are there any conventions when using an appendix?
A. Please see CMOS 1.57: “Appendixes usually follow the last book chapter, though an appendix may be included at the end of a chapter (introduced by an A-level subhead) if what it contains is essential to understanding the chapter.” It’s your choice whether to have a single appendix that contains all the tables or to put each table in a separate appendix. If you can’t think of any reason why it will matter to readers, then it probably doesn’t.
Q. How is capitalization handled in questions of ambiguous geographical origin? I’m trying to rationalize 8.37 and 8.60. Is it “German shepherd,” on the grounds that the term refers to the putative geographical origin of the dog, or “german shepherd,” in the same way that you have “swiss cheese” and “french dressing” on the grounds that the term is nonliteral, meant to evoke recall of a geographic place irrespective of the actual origin? (If this is confusing because German shepherds may originate from Germany, what about Australian shepherds, which have nothing to do with Australia whatsoever?)
A. CMOS can list only so many examples, and it’s no good wasting time pondering fine distinctions, so if your document uses some terms that Chicago lowercases and others you aren’t sure about, rather than agonize over possible inconsistencies, just look up the words in a dictionary: CMOS lowercases french dressing and swiss cheese, but Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary uppercases them (along with Australian shepherd and German shepherd). Make your choices with a view to minimizing inconsistencies, and record them in your style sheet.
Q. If you are presenting a quotation that contains footnotes within the original passage, do you retain those footnotes in the quoted passage, or is it all right to drop them as long as you provide the usual attribution via your own paper’s citations?
A. It’s conventional to drop the notes from quoted text. If you want to refer to the content of a note, however, quote and cite it separately.
Q. I’m editing a business document that explains how to use an advertising report. The word geographies is used as a noun and as a synonym for regions. For example, “Identify geographies that yield better results.” The dictionary doesn’t help. In general, how can an editor determine if a jargon word is a good candidate for a company style guide, or if the word is simply silly and should be replaced?
A. Much of the time, a nonspecialist editor should not decide. Instead, query. You can ask, “OK to replace geographies with regions, or is geographies the current industry lingo?” (It’s best to resist phrases like “simply silly.”)
Q. Where in the manual will I find guidance to answer the question whether the adverb structurally in the phrase “structurally modify or upgrade” qualifies only the verb modify or both the verbs modify and upgrade? I have looked at paragraphs 5.143 through 5.161 (15th ed.) but don’t perceive the guidance I need.
A. Alas—the great and powerful manual cannot tell you what this writer was thinking. The only way to know for sure is to ask him or her. If you don’t have access to the writer, then you will have to settle for ambiguity. If you need to know the exact meaning because you’re involved in a lawsuit whose outcome depends on the technical meaning of this phrase, you’re at the mercy of the judge. If you are the judge, well, good luck.